Saturday, November 17, 2007

Our Last Two Days

Once we got back to Warsaw, our schedule's were packed. My husband was teaching, and I was whisked about the countryside by my gracious and patient tour guides. On Thursday, we got to tour the home of Chopin, you know, the famous classical composer? It was so neat to walk the floor of his home, see hand-written birthday cards he wrote to his parents, all the while hearing his music played. We walked the beautiful grounds, and I could easily see how they would be an inspiration.
We went to the museum dedicated to the Warsaw Rising, where the citizens of Warsaw organized and fought off the Nazis. It almost worked, but they couldn't get enough outside help. I saw so many letters, photos and momentos belonging to these brave people. I wish things could have turned out differently for them, and I hope if the time comes for me to show that kind of courage, I'll be as up to it as they were. We went out for Kuba's favorite fast food- kebab. They have stands selling them everywhere. They have this huge amount of meat roasting on a spike. They keep shaving pieces off into a pita, with shredded cabbage and things, mix in a little special sauce, and voila' magic! It is really good, but I think my favorite is still the taco trucks we have here. You just can't beat the cilantro. Sorry, Kuba.
Then Anna took me to Wedel's, the most fantabulous chocolate shop in the world. I snagged a picture from the web, and a travel guide review:

Who could resist E. Wedel? The nationally famous chocolate company was founded in 1852. Now a part of Cadbury Schweppes, the traditions are carefully preserved...along with their beautiful building. Bombed during the war, of course the persistent Poles rebuilt the building. Wedel's recent renovations are exquisite, making the chocolate shop something you should not miss. You come here to drink hot chocolate at a little marble table in lush surroundings ... or to buy some of that absolutely amazing chocolate for a special gift...or when you just can't live another minute without a chocolate fix.
Wish I had the time to go back and linger at a window seat.
I had nice, thick hazelnut hot chocolate, and a taste of tiramasu. Ahhhhh.

The next morning, we were off to Wilanow, a palace belonging to the former kings of Poland. It was exquisite. My favorite part was the gallery of portraits. I LOVE looking into the faces of people who lived so long ago. Some of them were so skillfully done, you'd swear it was someone you just passed on the street. Kuba made a discovery about me during these museum excursions. I take just as long to get through one as his mom. Apparently, he and his dad are resigned to the fact that they'll be waiting hours for Anna after they're done with a museum. History and art are food for me, I just can't stand to leave any little fact or beautiful picture untasted.No cameras were allowed inside, but get a load of about half of the exterior! After the war, it became communist government property, and the family that used to live there is still around. They're trying to get it back, but with little chance of success.
We walked around the Old Town again, and this time I was in for a shock. Since I've been learning more about the city's history, something caught my eye that wouldn't have before. We were walking along a beautiful cobbled street, and I noticed that the wall beside me was unusually pitted. "Anna," I said, "These aren't bullet holes, are they?" She points to a sign, memorializing what had happened where I was standing.
She explained that this building had been a hospital, during the Warsaw Rising, and the Germans had taken 350 people from inside, and shot them against this wall. Now, there are plaques like this all over town. With 700,000 civilian casualties in this city alone, I'm beginning to get a whole different perspective on the magnitude of Sept. 11th.

As we walked briskly through a square (it was really cold) we saw a military procession. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time to see their new defense minister sworn in. It was neat to be able to see that.
By this time, we'd been walking for a while in the cold, and we needed a nice place to thaw. Anna really came to the rescue. She took us to the warmest, coziest, most hobbit-like teashop in the basement of an ancient building. We had the most fragrant fruit tea. The shop was lit with candles, with soft music playing, a young couple was playing a quiet game of scrabble a few tables away. My pictures don't do the feeling of this place justice, but here goes:

After this, there was just time to hit an art museum. By this time, poor selfless Kuba had been through more estrogen fueled activities than he could stand. He took some money and bailed on us, much to Anna's dismay. He was our interpreter! I assured her we'd be fine, and we were. There were marvelous exhibitions of altar art from the middle ages, fantastic altar carvings, pieta's, icons, and this incredible wood, leather and parchment manuscript from the 1500's.
Can you tell that the page to the left is a song? Sigh. There was more, a lot more, and we drank it in like nectar. It was beautiful. We picked up a very relieved Kuba, and we met the guys for an authentic Polish dinner. We talked, we laughed, we told funny stories about Kuba getting caught on the couch with....never mind.

They dropped us off at our hotel, and I tried to keep Lewis entertained while he packed. See, he's funny about the way things get packed, like I am about the way the dishwasher gets loaded. There's a right way to do things and a wrong way. Lewis holds the secrets to proper luggage packing, so I thrilled him with anecdotes about our day...until I fell asleep and he packed alone for another hour and a half. See why I didn't want to get in the way?
Kuba and his family picked us up and took us to the airport at the unholy hour of 4:45 in the morning, bless them. We said our goodbyes, and made plans to meet again soon. The men will see each other at a conference in February. Then Anna presented me with hand made truffles. Truffles! Can this woman get any nicer?

So now I'll skip to the end. We made it home, without our luggage, but at least we're here. Our children thrived under my parent's loving care, and I'm sure my parents are sleeping deeply and gratefully in their own beds tonight. I've been up for about 30 hours, and I'm feeling great, except that the world keeps tilting oddly to the side. I think it's finally time to call it a night.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

At long last- some pictures!

Okay, here is the door of a church in a little village about three hours down the Vistula called Kazamierz. I was blown away by the beauty and the antiquity of this cool door. Check out the threshold stones under my feet. How neat is that? Can you imagine how many centuries it would take to wear them down like that?

Here is the guard tower that was here before the town or even the church I just showed you. We got to climb up there and take in the view.

This village specializes in funky chicken bread. It tastes good too! I can't wait to try to make it myself, I think I'll make some for Thanksgiving.

This neat trunk was in the hotel lobby in Krakow. I loved the wooden wheels, and can you see the date on it? 1781.

This was a wall in the oldest synagogue in Krakow, and that's saying something. It's from somewhere around the 1300s. It's been restored, bu they kept some of the carved walls exposed.

This was the oldest Jewish cemetary in the city. It was so overgrown with moss and forlorn, with headstones leaning and toppling.

This was a little escape tunnel in a basement restaurant we ate at. This was in the seriously old part of the city, within the walls. When part of the city was under attack, the citizens would be able to get to each other's houses, and emerge where the fighting wasn't so hot so they could stretch their legs, forage for food, take a jog, walk the dog, you get the picture.

If you are ever offered Polish pancakes, and you are on a diet, run. Just run away. These will take away any self control you have. Mine were the sweet cheese ones. They tasted just as good at four the next morning.
This was the last chapel in the salt mine. See the shiny floor? Salt. The carvings in the walls? Salt too.
Is this quartz you ask? Nope, salt. It's hard to believe, I know, but I've licked it. It's true.

The chapel at the Wawel castle. This castle was really popular with conquering hordes. They just kept occupying it throughout history. Each particular horde left their mark. The Swedes made a parade ground for their troops, the German's left a hospital. Go figure.
This was the splendid view from our hotel room. I think it's the opera house.

Ah, this is Mary's church, where the heynal is played by the trumpeter of Krakow every hour of the day. There are legends about the courage of the trumpeter, warning the city of, you guessed it, oncoming hourdes. He got stuck with an arrow before he could finish, so the trumpeter stops his song early as a tribute.
One of the last remaining guard towers left. Isn't it splendid? Now, imagine what another forty would have looked like!

My favorite, the knight's outpost just outside the wall. Note the notched windows for defense. The ground I'm standing on must have seen a lot of action!

This is the oldest building of the university. It was built around the 1300s too. The caution tape is there because it's raining, and the drain dumps right there. Well, that's all for now, I hope you enjoyed these, I sure did.

Back in Warsaw

We had a very full last day in Krakow. First, we woke up at four in the morning, wide awake, but with no idea what time it was. We laughed when we called the front desk and they told us. We were able to force ourselves to sleep a little longer, and then we set out. We took a tram to the Jewish quarter, and it was very sobering to be there. We walked through a Jewish cemetary, reading the words etched in stone like "This commemorates the 88 members of the Bergman family, killed by Hitler. Earth, don't cover their blood. Dedicated by the two surviving members of the family." The Germans had come in and demolished many of the stones, and used them to pave streets. Many of the fragments were later taken and used to line the walls of the cemetary, sometimes all you could see were a few Hebrew letters, sometimes a beautiful carving. I had a hard time not feeling so angry that something like this could actually happen in living memory. After a while, I realized that everyone who was killed is now at peace, and almost all of those who did the killing have gone on to their own special reward. I came to the conclusion that all I could do at this point is remember and teach my boys to do the same. We saw some incredibly old synagogues, some almost a thousand years old. I admit though, it was a bit of a relief to leave that part of the city and head to the castle. Genocide can be a bit of a downer after a while.
Just outside the old city wall, is a fortified outpost where the knights would wait for oncoming hordes of Tartars or Germans, and anyone who seemed to have a hankering for Krakow. It seems a lot of people did. This outpost had the cool slits in the walls for the archers to shoot through, and the fabled "eye of the needle" that just one guy crouching could fit through. There used to be a moat and everything. Until the last century, the old city was completely surrounded by an ancient wall with 42 guard towers. The city planners decided that these features that had stood for so many centuries had become passe' and were taking up too much room. They demolished all but four towers and a bit of wall, and made a park where they had been. I know. Insane.
Many of the buildings in the old city had exposed stones in the foundations, and we found out that these were from before the invention of bricks. Mind bogglingly old. I wish I had access to the pictures, I don't do it justice.
We took this walking tour for three hours in the freezing rain. I was such a good girl, I never complained. Usually I'm a big baby and wear out quickly and need a nap, but I was determined not to ruin this for Lewis. We stopped half-way through for some hot chocolate, and I got to thaw a bit.
A few words on Polish chocolate, and their desserts in general. We were at a gala banquet, with all unfamiliar but beautiful food laid out before us. I dove for this little chocolate cake, knowing that this at least would not have fish in it. My spoon parted the velvety brown like warm butter. It touched my lips and I knew the answer to world peace. I had a hard time not weeping for either joy or sadness that I would not have this every day of my life. When we stopped for hot chocolate, I ordered a slice of cake to go with is. I decided, why not, it's a little-known fact that there aren't actually any calories here. It looked like ordinary, dry coffee cake. Imagine my delight when I find that it is cheesecake, not anything like American cheesecake, more rich, more thick, a more subtle flavor. I can live many years on the memory of that cake.
We leave the shop, and I am again freezing, wet, tired, and ready to get back to my beloved Warsaw shower. On the train ride back, we experiment with different sleeping positions. It's tough to do without encroaching on others and keeping circulation in your limbs. I managed to sleep a while and achieved a perfect, almost indelible hand print in my face. Lewis was amazed, he could see my fingernails, knuckles, everything, right there on my cheek. We stumbled back into our room, took advantage of that blessed, blessed shower, and sank into sweet oblivion. Then I woke up at four am ready to party.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Krakow Continued....

We went to the salt mines yesterday, they were amazing! I had no idea what to expect, I hadn't really heard anything about them. What it is, is an ancient mine carved from rock salt. The floor was smooth and shiny, the walls looked like stone, but they were all really just salt. Our guide challenged us to lick them and see. It took me a while to get brave enough, but eventually I moistened my finger and tested it out. Yep, salt. The earlier shafts were carved in the 1500 and 1600s. Copernicus, the something to do with science guy, visited there. So did Goethe. The neat thing is, that these miners were very religious, and carved chapels in the salt. Some of the most ancient carved figures were smoothed and blurred by moisture, but it was all there, altars, pillars, statues of Mary and Christ. There were several chapels, each more stunning than the last. The tour ended in a breath-taking one that is still used for weddings, concerts and parties. All around the room are carvings depicting the life of Christ. It was a really long tour, and we were up by four that morning to catch our train, so by the time our tour was done, I was one spent chicky-babe. My lips were numb, my throat was sore, and all I wanted to do was crawl in bed after a nice, hot shower. Let me tell you, the Polish know how to do showers. Hot, strong, all-enveloping ones. I stumbled into our room, feeling very cold and grouchy and undressed ready to be transported by hot steamy bliss. I stuck my hand in the water and got an unpeasant shock. Freezing. Cold. No hot water. I almost cried, I think I might have whimpered a little. I shivered there, reluctantly pulling on the clothes I'd just cast off with such relief. I looked at the unfamiliar bed: thin, lumpy-looking, unpromising. I whimpered some more. Cradling my freezing, dripping hand, I pulled back the surprisingly heavy covers and found something almost more amazing than the salt mines. A cozy, warm, feathery womb of a bed! Soft beyond soft, and heavy enough to stifle any aches and twinges I picked up during the long day. I woke up again, at 9pm, ready to face life again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Live- from Krakow!

After a wonderful day touring the almost thousand year old village of, um, starts with a K...Kasamiraz? Something like that, we've just arrived for a two-day adventure in Krakow. We took a high-speed train that took us in two hours what it would take 5 to drive. We don't have laptop access, so pictures will have to wait for a day or so. The village was amazing! We walked the cobblestone streets that used to be teeming with Jews before the war. I could almost hear their footsteps, their talking, laughing and singing in happier days. I could vividly imagine the day they were herded up like cattle with children crying and scared. They're all gone now, and the village looks so peaceful and tranquil. We ate at a former Jewish barbershop, and the walls were plaster with straw sticking out! I couldn't help but run my fingers over it. We went to a cloister that was built in the 1600s and is still in use. The walls were feet thick, and the threshold of the door was worn down a few inches by centuries of Sunday footsteps. We saw the ruins of a castle Napolean laid waste to, and climbed the guard tower that was there since around 1100 ad. I can't wait to post the pictures, they're unbelievable. We're off in a few minutes to a four hour tour of the salt mines, one of the wonders of the world. You'll read all about it tomorrow! Until then, CZESC! That means bye.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Live- from Warsaw!

Hello my friends, we made it safely over the ocean and arrived in Warsaw yesterday morning. We had some really long flights, but the one from Chicago to Warsaw was the most fun. People were festive and chatty, excited to be going home. When we finally touched down, everyone broke into applause.

Anna and Marek, Kuba's parents were waiting for us as we emerged from customs. The coolest thing, is that I now have a stamp on my brand new passport! We nervously greeted each other, and they took us to our hotel. After we crashed for a few hours, they came with Kuba to collect us and take us to their house for an authentic Polish dinner. Their flat was so cool. They have it painted in vibrant colors with original art hanging all over the walls. They've travelled everywhere, and there are books from all over crammed in shelves. Lewis and I were practically salivating to just touch them all and look inside.
I got to help Anna make, count them, FOUR different kinds of pirogi! They were incredible: mushroom and cabbage, potato and cheese, meat, and sweet cheese. All but the sweet pirogi were topped by one of the seven deadly sins, succulent and flavorful bacon grease. I loved it, and I'm really glad I've had the chance to do a lot of walking. I think I'm going to need to run all the way home to work off all the Polish love I've been tasting. We got a chance to catch up with Kuba and really appreciate his hard work cleaning his room just for us. We knew what a sacrifice that was for him, and were very grateful.
During WW2, Warsaw was 80% destroyed. That's such a tragedy, because their architecture is stunning. Anna and Marek took us to the old town, surrounded by an ancient castle wall, where the buildings had been rebuilt to close to their former splendor. The wind was bitingly cold, but I was so transported by what I saw, I hardly noticed it.

Walking down the cobblestone streets, you feel like you've stepped back in time, hundreds of years. Every other building or so has a plaque on it memorializing the violent deaths of Poles the Nazis killed at that location. War memorials are everywhere. It made me feel so grateful that although America payed a heavy price during WW2, it was nothing to the suffering of each and every Pole. This morning, after a wild ride, we made it to the one LDS chapel in Warsaw. Lewis was beyond excited to be back where he'd spent so much of his mission. He saw all kinds of people he knew, even one man he'd been a missionary with. The Polish members have to be so strong, I really admire their courage.

Here we are with a ton of missionaries serving in Warsaw. Lewis had a ball telling his stories of when the mission had barely opened.

After church, we made it back to the center of town, where of all the luck, they were celebrating their independence day. We loved meandering through the crowds, drawing funny looks because we look WAY American.

We had some more Polish food, that is beginning to stage a protest somewhere in the vicinity of my vitals. Not serious yet, mind you, but there is a vague ominous feeling of an impending digestive doom. We came back to the hotel, where we promptly fell deeply unconscious and woke up ready to take on the day at 10pm! We're having a fantastic time, and I can't wait for tomorrow's adventures!